City Council was pressing well into the 11 o'clock hour last night by the time the procedural event happened: City Councilman Mike Woodard made the motion for a vote on the billboard industry's rezoning proposal, while Cora Cole McFadden seconded the item.
By this point, the outcome was clear -- enough Council members had signalled during discussion that they'd oppose the measure to make its failure a foregone conclusion. The only question was the margin of victory/loss, depending on your point of view.
Mayor Bill Bell opened the vote, and all eyes turned to the big-screen TVs mounted on the wall. A sea of reds, red for "Nay" -- save for one green mark next to Farad Ali's name.
"Uhhhh... uhhhh..." Ali stammered, clearly flustered at a mis-vote. To much laughter, Bell reminded Ali that he'd opened the vote, but hadn't closed it. Quickly, Ali's green box flipped to red.
Half the audience erupted in anticipated cheers; the other, stood silently and smoothed out their sports coats and dresses in preparation for a grim walk out of the chambers.
To organizers of the billboard measure's opposition, the outcome was expected coming into the night, if their assurances from the close-held lobbying of Council members held. But it wasn't clear until the very last whether it'd be unanimous or not.
That unanimity? It came down to a variety of factors, including the overwhelming differential in emails and letters from citizens; concerns over job and tax numbers; concerns over reopening the door on a legal matter long-fought with a seven-figure litigation bill by the City; and the surprise presence of an influential speaker for the opposition.
And don't leave out the X-factor in the whole vote: a happenstance billboard for a Raleigh gun and knife show that couldn't have picked a worse perch above the Durham roadways -- and couldn't have found a worse Councilman to tick off.
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Certainly it was one of the more memorable Council meetings in my memory, and one that had to be experienced in the flesh, as it were, to get the full experience.
Supporters of the revised billboard ordinance turned out in decent numbers, and early, filling up the seats directly in front of the dais. As opponents arrived, they grabbed the occasional seat here and there, and took up space in the northern overflow section, behind media row and the corners where City staff observe, confer, and occasionally snicker and gossip over the night's drama.
And they certainly looked organized, wearing "Advance Durham" stickers mirroring the DurhamBillboardFacts.com web site's logo, and in many cases conferring with the lobbyists and organizers supporting Fairway Outdoor Advertising's effort.
Opponents added their own names to the sign-up list to speak; by the start of the meeting, there were about thirty speakers on each side.
It was a meeting that had the look it could have gotten out of control quickly. And to echo a comment made here at BCR earlier, the thing that kept that happening was a clear establishment of parliamentary control by Bell.
Before the general business agenda even kicked off with a number of routine planning items, Bell set ground rules for the discussion, requesting decorum and noting the rules of engagement by which such a public hearing would be held. Bell added that he would not allow the yielding of time from one speaker to another -- something common in controversial cases with big sign-ups, allowing long discourses from spokesfolks for one side or the other.
And the procedural strictness continued through the meeting; when Bell called out the order of speakers for the proponents, attorney Patrick Byker approached the podium mic to offer that the speakers might appear in a different order since their points were lined up sequentially to make a logical argument.
Bell, showing annoyance, informed the proponent's attorney that the speakers would appear in the order hizonner had just called, since he wasn't going to fumble through the cards to line people up. Byker quickly backed down, and the proponents arrived in their original order.
Proponents emphasized the economic value towards small businesses and non-profits that digital billboards and improved structures would offer.
Matt West, a billboard ad space salesman, noted a $1 million annual advertising value linked to the proposed nonprofit space donations by Fairway -- while also telling Council that the restrictions in question were "taking my livelihood away" with three young daughters at home.
He added that public safety would be improved by the crime and safety messages of the signs, telling Council that he had been told Durham had a crime problem nearly twenty years ago when he came to town, and that anything that could be done to impact that would make it a better city.
Ernie Mills, Jr., son of the founder of the Durham Rescue Mission, thanked Fairway for the time they'd donated to their non-profit serving homeless persons and families. "Fairway has been tremendous partners with the Durham Rescue Mission," Mills said, even suggesting that digital billboards could be used to share warnings to tell the homeless when the cold meant they should come in to shelter for the night.
Representatives of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, whose boards voted to support the ordinance, spoke in favor of the measure. Anthony Pugliese, the senior site executive for AICPA, noted that his company had looked at almost fifty different factors in deciding where to relocate within the US, and that billboards or their absence didn't appear anywhere on their radar screen.
East Durham activist the Rev. Mel Whitley, Jr. likened opposition to digital billboards to people who "wanted to continue using horse and buggies," telling Council, "I like billboards. They tell me where to stop and eat," to universal (and certainly anticipated) laughter.
It was a diverse set of proponents, from well-known activists like Whitley and Crest Street's Willie Patterson to members of local business groups to representatives of non-profits.
The opponents' side was, well, crunchier, from reps of the Eno River Association to neighborhood groups clustered around the urban Durham neighborhoods from Old Farm south to near-downtown areas in east and west Durham.
Those neighborhoods border routes like US 501, I-85 and the Durham Freeway that could have been impacted by the measure, since billboards wouldn't have been allowed in the I-40 corridor or on NC 147 south of Ellis Road.
But as the opponents were being called in order, a murmur went through the opposition side as Bell noted the arrival of a couple of late speakers for that side -- including Lavonia Allison, chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Among the opponents' side, that raised some interest; Allison's been publicly silent on the issue of billboards, and there was some wondering as to whether she might have been planning to support them and signed up on the wrong end or too late to make the proponent side.
The opponents got things off to a flashy start, with Page McCullough leading a number of opponents in donning LED-powered flashing sunglasses and telling Council in a twenty-word statement that that kind of light display on billboards wouldn't move Durham forward.
Other speakers noted the opposition of more than 70% of Durhamites in a DCVB poll, and described the visual blight and environmental impact of the signs. "Durham is a very progressive city, and I think part of that progressiveness has to do with how our city looks, and part of that includes billboards," said Eric Strother.
The content of digital billboards in other communities also drew complaints from some speakers.
"I can't tell you where one rape crisis or homeless shelter is" in Alamance County, one speaker noted, but said he could tell you where every strip club and pawn shop is.
Tom Harris, a resident of W. Sprunt Ave. with a clear view of I-85 and 15/501 from his back yard, said he "can only see my property values going to hell in a handbasket" if digital and relocated billboards appeared on his horizon.
But all eyes were on Lavonia Allison, who appeared near the end of the speakers list.
In a seeming reference to her standing against some of the anti-billboard activists on the controversial 751 South issue, Allison said with a broad smile, "It's really nice to have an opportunity to be on one side of a group on one night, and on the other side the other."
Allison noted the DCABP had not taken an official position on the stance -- but also that "neither ebony nor alabaster" were monolithic in their views. She complained about the visuals of billboards she saw along the I-95 corridor south of Benson, and noted that the LBJ administration didn't just pass the Voting Rights Act, but pushed for highway beautification rules, too.
"You can demonstrate tonight we are not like Greensboro, we are not like Wake County," Allison said.
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That question of geography came up frequently in the discussion and questions by Council members after the public hearing ended.
Proponents brought a long list of cities in NC that allow digital billboards, from Asheville to Charlotte to the Triad, to Fayetteville and New Bern and Rocky Mount.
But nowhere in the Triangle.
"It staggers my imagination why you came to Durham to propose this project. Why not start it in Wake County?" asked Howard Clement, whose questioning of the billboard proponents would make for some of the more electric moments of the evening.
Addressing Fairway's Paul Hickman, Clement asked, "That's just a question that troubled me. If it's good enough for Durham, why isn't it good enough for Wake County? And since you live there, shouldn't it start there rather than here?"
Hickman told Clement that Durham came first "because we thought Durham was the most open and progressive community in the Triangle" -- an answer that, in a moment of less-than-civility, drew open laughter from the opponents in the room.
"I'm really flattered," Clement deadpanned.
Clements' questioning was in some ways set-up by the earlier comments of Mike Woodard, who'd earlier raised the question of why the Bull City should go first in digital signage. Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Cary, and Morrisville all have digital and conventional billboard restrictions. "Why choose Durham first?"
Woodard said that "given the history of this issue over the past twenty-five years," he saw two issues at hand: whether the burden of proof had been met by the applicant, and whether the change would be a "public good" for residents at large.
He answered his rhetorical questions: no, and no.
"This issue has united Durham like no other that I can remember," Woodard said, citing the receipt of more than 1,000 emails and letters opposed to the changes, versus less than a dozen in favor. He added that he'd heard from plenty of local residents, non-profits, Realtors, and business owners -- including some Chamber members expressing concern that they differed from their board's vote.
He added that many of the cities cited as using digital billboards for public safety and anti-crime messages themselves had high crime rates.
But Woodard's piece de resistance was a short PowerPoint he prepared, showing the new R. Kelly Bryant pedestrian bridge over NC 147 and describing it as an investment in reconnecting two halves of a disconnected neighborhood.
The bridge named for the longtime NC Mutual employee and living archive of Durham history has a Fairway billboard just over its northeastern edge.
The nonagenarian Bryant had written to Council asking they "NOT... start changing our successful sign ordinance."
And even on the verge of the bridge's dedication in September, the billboard at the bridge's edge carried a new advertisement -- for the Dixie Gun and Knife show being held in Raleigh this weekend.
If Clement had been on the fence (and he said at the opening of his comments that he was), the Dixie Gun and Knife show sign was enough to push him over the edge.
Noting that he had had his chauffeur take him to see the sign -- and calling out an influential Council member as that person, to laughter from the audience -- Clement grilled the Fairway team on what they were going to do about that sign.
"But that's offensive. And when I saw it, and I saw it personally… I had my chauffeur, Mike Woodard, take me out there and I saw it coming and going. I said, my goodness, something needs to be done about that," Clement said.
Fairway attorney Lewis Cheek noted that "with the text amendement, we can move it" -- a point that Diane Catotti took issue with.
After all, she mused a few minutes later, the industry can always take down signs at will; they just don't get to erect them anew.
Catotti also raised the spectre that it's not just "off-premises" billboard signs that could be impacted. If Durham changes the rules, she warned, on-premises signs erected by businesses could come up for challenges on the restrictions Durham had placed on them.
"More legal challenges will be sure to come if we make changes to this ordinance," Catotti said, citing the seven-year, million-dollar legal battle over Durham's 1984 ordinance that kicked off the billboard ban.
Eugene Brown also expressed his opposition to any changes. "There are lots of ways to enhance this city, but I don't think digital billboards really play a role in that."
He noted he'd received more emails on billboards than any other matter he'd seen in seven years on Council. "On an issue like this, it definitely has an impact," Brown said.
"In my judgement, for Fairway, this is not the fair way for Durham to proceed," Brown said. "Indeed, I would suggest just the opposite, that it is the wrong way."
Still, Clement had not announced his vote. And that left three "no" votes announced. Where would the fourth come from?
Farad Ali seemed interested in some form of compromise to improve the aesthetics of poorly-aging billboards on US 70 and elsewhere. Karen Sindelar pointed out the existing ordinance already requires maintenance on the signage, though restrictions on the percentage of investment allowable does prevent creosote pole signs from being modernized to steel monopole structures.
Bell asked what harm would come to billboard owners, or to the City, if the new ordinance wasn't passed.
The phrasing of the question seemed to confuse the audience and Cheek, who seemingly tried to parse Bell's missive before saying, "I honestly don't know if there's harm to the CIty of Durham if the change is not made." Cheek went on to point out that there would be harm to the industry: "the inability to do the things that we've proposed to do: to upgrade, to move signs out of the residential areas."
Cora Cole-McFadden was next, on her second pass at Q&A and commentary; her first turn focused on the number of jobs created and extant in Durham thanks to the industry.
Those questions elicited that Fairway once had some Durham residents in its employ, but that "moved on to other opportunities," a point that seemed displeasing to Cole-McFadden.
A Fairway rep noted that the ordinance would add landscaping requirements and allow for sign relocation, providing some job opportunities; he also noted that the Raleigh office was talking to corporate about adding a Durham office to support digital billboard operations through the firm.
But that wasn't sufficient for Cole-McFadden.
"This is my third term, and I've never seen the outpouring of passion for an issue that I've seen for this," the mayor pro tem said. "I wish we had the same passion for how we're going to stop our kids from hurting each other, and at some point, I want to see this place filled with people who really have a passion for our children. Billboards cannot define who we are."
"At this juncture I can fund no compelling reason, no compelling reason to change the ordinance," Cole-McFadden said.
And with that, the vote was sealed -- at least four "no" votes were present.
But Clement wanted to have one more say.
"I don't mean to belabor this, but I want some clarity about what we're going to do with that billboard," Clement said. "I was hoping the folks from Fairway would get up and say we'll remove that thing first thing in the morning, and I'm still waiting to hear that response."
Clement cited the sign's content as an "example of the callous disregard for the heritage of Durham."
Bell asked city attorney Patrick Baker to clarify that under the existing ordinance -- and likely any ordinance -- the City couldn't regulate what content would appear on a billboard, something Baker agreed with. (A similar argument has been raised by City/County staff over the enforceability of the one-public-service-message-per-minute language in the ordinance.)
And with that, the matter was closed and up for a vote.
And on a council where not much that's controversial passes with all seven officials on the same side of an issue, the 0-7 vote reigned.